Mindanao goes organic farming

By Henrylito D. Tacio

 

Filipino farmers who are searching for a system that is not only environment-friendly but improves their income as well should look no further.  The answer to their quest: organic farming.

 

In Mindanao, at least 120 hectares of rice farms in Sultan Mastura, Maguindanao is planted to organic rice, an agriculture practice that is already gaining ground around the country’s second largest island as many farmers have now seen the sweet harvest of those who went ahead of them and practiced what was earlier was less popular.

 

“Organic agriculture is the answer,” pointed out Jessica Reyes-Cantos of the Manila-based Rice Watch and Action Network.  “It won’t only retain soil productivity but it can make farming viable.  If farmers will have additional income from their land they will continue to plant rice.”

 

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) supports the idea.  Its report, Organic Agriculture and Food Security, explicitly states that organic farming fights hunger, tackles climate change, and is good for farmers, consumers and the environment.

The FAO report frames a paradox within the conventional food production systems.   Global food supply is sufficient, but 850 million are undernourished and go hungry.  Use of chemical agricultural inputs is increasing; yet grain productivity is dwindling to seriously low levels.  

 

Not only that.  Costs of agricultural inputs are rising, but commodity costs have been in steady decline over the past five decades.  Industrialized food systems cause deaths through pesticide poisonings and high numbers of farmers have committed suicides, while millions of jobs have been lost in rural areas.

 

Organic farming, according to FAO’s Nadia Scialabba, is “a holistic production management system that avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and genetically modified organisms, minimizes pollution of air, soil and water, and optimizes the health and productivity of plants, animals and people.”

 

Organic agriculture products trading in the world is increasing by 20-30 percent every year.  It is a vibrant commercial agricultural system practiced in 120 countries, covering 31 million hectares of cultivated lands and an additional 62 million hectares of certified wild harvested areas.  The organic market was worth US$40 billion in 2006, and expected to reach US$70 billion by 2012.

 

In Mindanao, some big agricultural firms – like La Frutera, Inc., Marsman Drysdale and Del Monte – have started looking at organically grown products due to their potential in the international market.  Popular organic products exported from the Philippines include bananas, beef, mangoes, muscovado sugar, papayas, peanuts, poultry, soya milk, vegetables from the uplands, yellow corn and rice.

 

However, promotion of organic farming should not be driven as a “profit making” scheme, to quote the words of Tom Villarin, but rather for family food security.  “If the farmer has excess products, he can sell it to the local markets,” explained the Mindanao representative to the National Organic Agriculture Board of the Department of Agriculture.  “What we are after is the food security and nutritional value to the farmer and his family.”

 

If the country goes organic, it would be able to feed its growing population.  A study conducted by the University of Michigan (UM) found out that organic farms in developing countries can yield up to three times as much food as low-intensive methods on the same land.

Professor Ivette Perfecto, one the study’s principal investigators, said that in developed countries, yields were almost equal on organic and conventional farms.  And in developing countries, food production could double or triple using organic methods.

 

“My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can’t produce enough food through organic agriculture,” said Prof. Perfecto, who is with the university’s school of natural resources and environment.  In addition to equal or greater yields, the study found that those yields could be accomplished using existing quantities of organic fertilizers, without putting more farmland into production.

Prof. Perfecto finds it “ridiculous” with the claim that people would go hungry if farming went organic.  “Corporate interest in agriculture and the way agriculture research has been conducted in land grant institutions, with a lot of influence by the chemical companies and pesticide companies as well as fertilizer companies – all have been playing an important role in convincing the public that you need to have these inputs to produce food,” she said.

In Mindanao, rice farmers are proving once and for all that organic farming can improve one’s income.  While it is true that conventional farming has higher yields at an average of at least 100 sacks per hectare, in the end of the computation it “is still not lucrative as it appear,” observed Eddie Panes, chairman of the Association of Sustainable Agriculture Practitioners of Palimbang (ASAPP), a core group of farmers practicing and propagating organic farming in Sultan Kudarat.

He claimed the net income per hectare is only P4,000 after deducting all the expenses (chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides) spent in conventional farming.  In comparison, organic farming has only an average of 60 sacks per hectare but the net income is P7,000.

 

In Davao del Norte, farmers who adopted organic farming claimed that their income has considerably increased.  Jerry Rivera, president of a farmers’ group in Santo Tomas town, said the adoption of organic farming has significantly lowered the cost of inputs. “Our farmers there are also helping in the local government’s thrust at proper solid waste management since we do not anymore burn rice hull,” he reported.

 

By doing away with chemicals, farmers are helping the environment.  With the high costs of fertilizers and pesticides, farmers are turning to old farming practices where plants grow without chemical intervention.  “It is an environment-friendly farming method,” said Father Greto Bugas, who organized ASAPP.  He added that organic farming is one way of restoring their dignity as farmers.

 

Going organic is being one with nature, and respecting God’s creations.  That is how Eugenio Geraldo, a farmer from Bukidnon, sees the traditional system.  “Why would you use pesticides and kill those insects?” he asked.  “They’re God’s creations!”

 

Geraldo plants rice, corn and a variety of vegetables organically.   He doesn’t apply fertilizers but uses animal manure, compost from decayed organic matters from his farm, and similar concoctions.  He claimed that, with his concoctions of sorts, he could command the ants to drive away pests from his crops.  And because he does not spray chemicals that would kill all insects in the farm, the predator insects become the farmer’s ally, driving away the pests.

 

“I now realized the importance of natural pest management especially what plants are useful for preventing pests in my farm,” observed a 37-year-old farmer from Lipao, Datu Paglas, Maguindanao after attending a training on organic farming system.

 

Organic farming is sort of a way in unifying Christians and Muslims.  Ishmael Pasaporte and Harry Mulod are two Muslim members of ASAPP.  Both are active in all activities and convince other farmers to shift to organic farming.

 

By joining the cooperative, Mulod said that his eyes were opened to the utmost importance of unity in achieving their goal.  “We were oriented on how to focus on our commonalities not on our differences as Christians and Muslims.  Organic farming helped bridge the gap created by wars and cultural differences,” he admitted.

 

More importantly, organic farming mitigates climate change.  A 30-year scientific trial shows that organic practices could counteract up to 40 percent of global greenhouse gas output. Andre Leu, chairman of Organic Federation of Australia, claims the trial of organic and conventional farming practices has proved that organic practices “can be the single biggest way to mitigate climate change.”

 

Scientists at the Rodale Institute in the United States have proven that organic farming practices can remove about 7,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide from the air each year and sequester it in a hectare of farmland.

 

According to Leu, the scientists estimated that if all of America’s 100 million hectares of cropland were converted to organic practices, it would be the equivalent of taking 217 million cars off the road.  “This is not a theoretical estimate as in some of the tree plantation models or unproven like the millions of dollars being spent clean coal or mechanical geo sequestration trials,” he said. “This is being achieved now by organic farmers in the US, Australia and around the world.”

 

“Lives are changing because of organic farming,” Trento Mayor Irenea Hitgano of Agusan del Sur said during the 5th National Organic Agriculture Conference held in Davao City recently, for which her town was named by the Department of Agriculture as the municipality with the best organic agriculture initiative.  “It’s laborious, yes, but the benefits will offset the process.”

 

As such, the government must help promote organic farming throughout the country.  “We urge the government, from national to local levels, to adopt policies that will ensure sustainable, organic agriculture and make this a primary agricultural strategy,” Villarin said.  Agricultural lands, like forest and aquatic resources, must be spared from mining operations, deforestations, land conversions and unlawful reclassification, he added.

 

Villarin’s group helped the farmers of Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, and Agusan del Sur to shift into organic farming. “It is inspiring to see that organic farmers are now self-sustaining while as they increase their productivity right at the household level,” he said. — ###

 

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